Dogwood Lane

The Quarterly Journal of the Mary May Binney Wakefield Arboretum ___________________________________

Volume Two, Issue 4 - Summer 2020
People and Land:
The Impact of Human Occupation on Local Land Use
Publisher's note: This edition of Dogwood Lane relies heavily on the scholarly research by Erin Doherty, Claire Dempsey, Zachary Violette, and Maureen O'Brien.

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans to the new world, Massachusetts was occupied by Native Americans for more than 10,000 years. They lived in concert with existing ecosystems, benefiting from the riches of the land while ensuring their long-term health and survival. Colonialism vastly changed the landscape and plant communities of Massachusetts for the next 300 hundred years. It is only in the last century that certain species have returned to Massachusetts due to the abandonment of land for better farming in the Midwest and Industrialization. All of these land use changes are evident in the cultural landscape of the Mary May Binney Wakefield Arboretum.

For thousands of years Native Americans learned to exploit the seasonal diversity of their environment by practicing mobility. The principal social and economic grouping for Native peoples was the village, a small settlement with a few hundred inhabitants organized into extended kin networks. Villages were not fixed geographical entities: their size and location changed on a seasonal basis, communities breaking up and reassembling as social and ecological needs required. Wherever villagers expected to find the greatest natural food supplies, they went. Houses consisted of grass mats and were designed to be taken apart and moved. (Cronin, Changes in the land, 2003)

The Native Americans called Milton Unquity-Quisset (Unquity), which means “Head of the Tidewater” where the salt water from the ocean met the fresh water of the river. They moved around the Milton-Quincy-Dedham area according to the seasons, planting corn in Milton and Wollaston, hunting in winter in the Blue Hills for rabbit and deer, and fishing at the falls at Lower Mills.
Image Courtesy of Harvard Forest
Farming allowed Native Americans of southern New England and Cape Cod a fundamentally different relationship to the environment compared to their counterparts that lived further north who could not farm due to a shorter growing season. The decision by Native Americans to engage in agriculture necessitated production of surplus seed each year to insure that planting could be done the following year. This enabled them to grow and store food for the winter, requiring much less dependence on hunting and fishing. Grain made up one-half to two-thirds of the Native Americans’ diet. Agriculture filled the void of seasonal scarcities of wild foodstuff, allowing native people to thrive. Native Americans seed-saved, protected, planted, and transplanted other useful plants, such as American chestnut, Canada plum, Kentucky coffee tree, groundnut, and leek. (Cronin, Changes in the land, 2003)
The Riches of the Blue Hills
According to City of Boston Archaeologist John Bagley, “The prominence of Great Blue Hill, the tallest hill within 10 miles of the Atlantic Coast south of Maine, was a landmark that all on the eastern side of Massachusetts could see. The surrounding hills were life givers in the sense that Native people could harvest raw stone from the ground, transform them into tools, and use those tools to hunt animals, process their food, cut down trees for structures, and hollow out large trunks for canoes. The fresh water of Ponkapaog Pond lies adjacent to one of the largest archaic Massachusett village site, dating to between 3,000 and 8,000 years old where stone was brought in great quantity to process into ulus, ground adzes, spear points, and other tools. The rivers and streams provided fresh water for hundreds of people and some of the very same paths that pass through the Blue Hills today were first blazed by the feet of Massachusett people 10,000 years ago.” (Keynote for Friends of the Blue Hills by John Bagley, October 15, 2014)
Patchwork Farming
Native Americans used a system of burning to clear the underbrush for hunting and growing crops in a patch work of forest and clearings. This produced a mosaic quality for New England ecosystems creating forests in many different stages of ecological succession. While Native Americans used it to simplify hunting and facilitate travel, there were subtler ecological effects of burning: it increased the rate and which forest nutrients were recycled into the soil, and enabled grasses, shrubs and non-woody plants to grow more luxuriantly following a fire than they had before. The burns not only maintained open forest and small meadows, but also encouraged fire-tolerant and sun-loving species such as strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and other gatherable foods, and destroyed plant diseases, pests and fleas. Regular fires promoted what ecologists refer to as the “edge effect” where the edges of two adjacent ecosystems overlap, such as land/water, or forest/grassland. This process created many ideal habitats for a host of wildlife species and promoted growing populations of deer, hare, beaver, turkey and ground birds. Few English observers realized that this was a kind of animal husbandry being practiced by the Native Americans that would be upset by colonists’ farming practices.
Arrival of Colonists
The first documented European settlers arrived in Milton around 1634, with early settlement clustered around Lower Mills Village and economic activity focused on agricultural pursuits. The majority of the town was laid out in the Sixth Division of Dorchester, of which Milton was a part until the town incorporated in 1662. Early records show that cattle were a very important part of the Milton economy in the seventeenth century, aside from some fishing in the Neponset.

Europeans viewed the natural riches of the “new world” as a source of income and wealth. They rapidly cleared land for timber to be used for houses and ship building or to be exported to Europe due to its severe scarcity there. “The English forests of hardwoods and conifers had been all but decimated by the thirteenth century. Beginning in the 1540s, further exploitation of its remaining forests ensued as British factories began consuming vast amounts of wood to fuel its iron industry. By the 16th century, the price of firewood doubled, leaving the poorest literally freezing to death." (Manning, New England Mast and the King's Broad Arrow, 1979) The giant pines of New England were particularly prized for masts of ships and “masting” becomes New England’s first major industry with over 50 sawmills exploiting the white pine trade by 1675. (See box below). The plentiful wildlife such as beaver were hunted and were quickly made scarce as they had become in Europe. Property was appropriated, purchased, or stolen from Native Americans and lands were quickly delineated by stone walls.
Image Courtesy of Harvard Forest
Who "owns" the new world's trees?
The drama surrounding America's virgin white pine forests
The tax on tea was not the only issue that raised anger among American colonists in the 1700’s. Eastern white pine played an equally key role in events that led to the Revolutionary War and American independence from England. The colonists began using white pine trees to build their homes and virtually all other structures. They also discovered that these trees were perfect for ship-building. By 1645, “Masting” became New England’s first major industry with the wood also being used for frames, planking, pitch and turpentine. Because of their extraordinary height (tallest recorded at 250’ in 1760), light weight, straightness, and diameters, the eastern white pine became the choice material for ship mast production.
It wasn’t long before England’s King George caught on to the value of white pine trees. Because the king wanted to maintain England’s dominance, he needed the best and fastest ships for his British Royal Navy fleet. “Eastern white pine made these ships the greyhounds of their day and a force to reckon with in any battle." ( England had long since depleted its own forests for ship-building, and since all of “New England” was considered "Crown Land" of the British Empire, King George decided that he had the rights to the white pine forests in America. The king created a group of surveyors and gave them the task of designating trees to be reserved for the king’s use only. King George’s surveyors marked the biggest and best trees within 10 miles of any navigable waterway with the King’s Broad Arrow, a series of three hatchet slashes. Initially, colonists ignored these designations. Problems grew as the colonists continued to cut down these trees. England began instituting stricter enforcement to reserve certain trees. Eventually, fights broke out between colonists and English surveyors. The Pine Tree Riot of 1772 was an important precursor to the Revolutionary War, fueling the rebellion and the fight for independence. Colonists even flew a red flag that had a green pine tree on it as a symbol of their independence.
The Davenports Arrive in Milton
By 1700, around the time that the Davenport line began in Milton, the population of Milton had reached 400 residents and was a well-established farming community. Major crops included barley, rye, Indian corn, pea vines and some fruit orchards. The Davenport farm began when John Davenport moved his family from Dorchester and purchased land in Milton. Under the succeeding two generations, the property and its agricultural operations grew as the family gained more acreage and more wealth.

The 1771 Massachusetts Tax Valuation recorded Samuel Davenport Jr., John’s grandson, as possessing 20 acres of pasture land, 4 acres of tillage and 10 acres of upland mowing. In addition to one house and two outbuildings, Samuel Jr. possessed 6 cattle, 4 swine, 3 horses, and 24 goats and sheep. The farm is listed as producing 60 bushels of grain, 4 tons of English and upland hay, 3 tons of fresh meadow hay, and 5 barrels of cider. Subsequent inventories show a fluctuation in the acreage farmed, the number of animals and the crops grown. In 1771, 83% of landowners of Massachusetts were farmers owning both improved land and livestock. The median farm size was 20 acres.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, ownership of the Davenport Farm transitioned to a new generation with stronger ties to the city of Boston and a more elevated social and financial standing. It is likely this change began when Isaac Davenport, a wealthy Boston merchant and the fourth generation of the family to own the property in Milton, assumed control of the estate in the late 18th century. Isaac constructed a grand country house on the property, eclipsing the estate’s farmhouse in style, size, and amenities. Isaac Davenport’s commercial activities were centered at Boston’s Long Wharf, and while his various real estate and trade dealings suggest that he maintained connections to the rural estate, his occupation was not agriculture. He is likely to have needed help managing the property as well as assistance in the fields.
“Isaac’s construction of the mansion house soon after his inheritance of the estate marks a significant departure in the symbolic meaning of rural land ownership by the family. It also serves as a benchmark for the family’s significantly altered wealth and social status in only four family generations in Milton. True to the persistent beliefs of his class, however, the agricultural function of the estate did not cease, and instead significantly expanded after his father’s death. Thus, the Davenport Estate transformed into a country seat as well as a tenanted farm.”  
(Doherty, The Davenport Estate: Land Use, Agriculture, and Architectural Display, 2011 )
Country estates with non-agricultural or dual focuses, such as these “gentlemen's farms,” began to dot Milton’s landscape in the mid to late nineteenth century and represented a change to the architectural and social landscape of the town. During this period, agricultural operations ceased to be the focus of the Davenport line in Milton; while the family continued its ownership of land, their property served primarily as a residence and recreational site for the family. Like many estates in Milton, the agricultural activity of the surrounding land was largely reduced or leased to tenant farmers.

At the time, some of Milton’s largest estates, agricultural and otherwise, were being broken up into small plots for single family homes. This dramatic evolution of the town and its rapid development coincided with another trend flourishing at some of the great estates. Many of the estates were being transformed, from properties primarily tied to agricultural operations, to country retreats tied to the idea of leisure and escape from the city of Boston with designed landscapes emulating European chateaus and formal gardens. After the tenure of Isaac Davenport and his heirs, the Brush Hill Road property would have two distinct purposes: leisure – in and around the Mansion house, and tenant farming – as a milk farm, utilizing the farmhouse and fields.
The estate’s first tenant farmer, Joseph Stevens of Weston, signed an agreement in 1846 with Joseph Hayward and Samuel Wigglesworth, husbands of Isaac Davenport’s two daughters, to operate the estate as a milk farm. The 1850 Agricultural Census for the farm, listed under tenant Joseph Stevens, reports 200 acres of improved land, 20 milk cows, 1 horse, 4 working oxen, 10 other cattle, and 4 swine with farm output listed as 300 bushels of Indian corn, 150 bushels of Irish potatoes, 150 bushels of barley, and 130 tons of hay. Since the seventeenth century, dairying had been a flourishing farm industry along the east coast, limited by the fact that milk could only be sold as cheese and butter. The viability of commercial milk farming was limited to local markets as milk could not be preserved without refrigeration, therefore, its sale necessitated a large enough market in close enough proximity where farmers could sell their product before it perished. With the advent of refrigeration and growing population density, milk farming became quite profitable. Despite reporting that he had 20 milk cows, Joseph Stevens does not mention producing butter or cheese in the 1850 agricultural census. It is likely that Stevens was catering to the growing market for fresh milk, rather than processing cheese or butter for market.
Polly Binney Wakefield's Imprint on the Landscape
Throughout the subsequent generational and ownership changes and subdivisions, the estate would continue in part to be operated exclusively by tenant farmers until Henry Binney inherited it in 1931. This begins the property’s modest transition back to an “agricultural” function. Prior to inheriting the estate, Henry and his family had rented a farm at Ponkapoag in Canton that they would frequently visit on weekends. Henry was fond of farm animals and the livestock population on the estate increased once the Binneys arrived.
Henry’s daughter Mary (“Polly”) shared her father’s affinity for these animals and was photographed tending to the chickens at their coop which would later become her propagation mist and pump house. In those early days in Milton, Polly had the opportunity to become actively involved in the design and maintenance of the existing garden at the estate, known now as the Front Garden, thought to have been designed by her aunt. In creating what is a typical classic revival garden entirely enclosed by a hedge, the family wanted the property’s landscape open for passersby to look in but wanted privacy within the garden.
They planted a short privet hedge, two and one half to three feet tall around the Garden with arches at the entrances. A few early photographs of Polly in the garden show what it looked like before she began to make design changes and enhancements.
Polly possessed a strong interest in studying and emulating the great formal classical gardens of the world. This form of "Amateur Gardening” and plant collection was soaring in popularity among affluent property owners in the first half of the 20th century. Many were anxious to have their estates embellished by a formal garden designed by one of the prominent designers of the day such as Beatrix Farrand, Marian Cruger Coffin, Fletcher Steele, and Ellen Biddle Shipman, all busy designing spectacular landscapes for the elite nearby.
Inspired by her aunt who had studied at the Lowthorpe Institute of Landscape Architecture for Women in Groton, MA, Polly registered at the Cambridge School of Architecture and Landscape Design in 1933, the first school to offer women graduate training in landscape architecture. After just two courses at the Cambridge School, Polly followed her aunt’s lead and enrolled at Lowthorpe. While there, Polly took a class with Ellen Shipman in 1935 about planting design, visited many gardens, and began to consider how to transform a 300-year old vernacular farm into elaborate formal garden terraces. The onset of World War II brought changes in the profession and diminished the opportunities for women in the field. That, coupled with her father’s death and brother’s departure for war, necessitated her taking a more active role in tending to and overseeing the property. Noting at the time that Lowthorpe hadn’t prepared her for managing the estate, Polly had no choice but to tend to the more traditionally male chores, even pruning the tall hedges and driving the tractor.
Polly's Lowthorpe Senior Thesis envisioned a terraced formal garden outside the historic front of the farmhouse.
Armed with knowledge from her classes at Lowthorpe, skills acquired during propagation classes at the Arnold Arboretum, and the frugality of a true yankee, Polly sought to create her own spectacular designed landscape and began to transform the estate into an arboretum for her specimen plants and trees. To accomplish this would bring Polly and the estate back to the property’s agricultural roots.
View Of Polly Wakefield's nurseries and gardens circa 1970.
Polly began systematically collecting seed and cuttings from select and unusual trees at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain and converted the henhouse into a mist house to propagate thousands of small trees. As the seedlings grew, they were planted outside in a series of nurseries to accommodate their size. While some plants such as her Varder Valley boxwood and kousa dogwoods were utilized to delineate the garden rooms and allees she was creating, others began to fill up the nursery spaces she created within the “bones” of the former hay fields. She welcomed nurserymen to come and buy her stock, but often found it hard to part with some of her prized dogwoods.

Polly was one of several local property owners who had developed a relationship with Thatcher Farm, a local family-owned dairy and home delivery service. They would lease or lend their land for growing hay or pasturing dry cows. This continued until the 1970s when Polly decided to grow walnut trees in the upper fields as an agricultural crop. By then, Polly had enough agricultural endeavors going that she was able to pursue an “agricultural/horticultural exemption tax exemption.”

Polly’s application was based on 7+ acres of pasture for her 25 sheep, .75 acre of nursery stock, .75 acre of forage for her sheep and 10 acres of woodlot comprised of her black walnuts, dogwoods, and maples. It was approved in 1980.
Polly's Motivation for her Agricultural Pursuits
Polly was motivated to pursue agriculture for several reasons, all relating to her interest in keeping her costs low and building a name for herself.
By keeping a herd of sheep, she could sell or spin their wool, and keep her mowing costs low.
By propagating her own plants, she could minimize the expense of creating her formal garden terraces and rooms, satisfy her hunger for unusual and intriguing plants, earn money by selling her plants, and possibly create her own legacy by developing her own cultivars.
The Landscape Since Polly's Death
The current staff of the Mary May Binney Wakefield Arboretum never knew Polly; she died in 2004, several years before staff were hired to carry on her legacy. But from her writings and actions during the latter half of her life, we can deduce her concerns about the future of this area, and in particular the threats to her landscape posed by so called “development” and “progress.”

In the last decades of the 20th century, Polly was aware of the growing disconnect and alienation between people and nature, and she was concerned about its impact. She reflected: “America is rapidly becoming a nation of spectators and a nation of consumers. To maintain the American tradition, we must return to participation and creativity. Milk was’nt (sic) born in a bottle, nor eggs in a carton nor beans in a box. Let us organize to re-establish the contact between the land and the people.” And like many pioneers with foresight before her, who recognize the value of preserving the natural beauty around us, she took decisive measures to ensure that her life’s work - her arboretum - would last well beyond her lifetime. Shortly before her death, she created the Mary May Binney Wakefield Charitable Trust, entrusted to care for her landscape and preserve it for future generations.
From the beginning, and following Polly’s interest, the staff set out to carry on Polly’s desire for using her landscape to “…re-establish the contact between the land and the people.” The phrase “learning landscape for all” fit Polly’s vision - not only to preserve these 22+ acres, but how to make them enticing and engaging for learners of all ages; how to use the landscape - as it had been used for over hundreds of years - for a particular purpose.

One of our first tasks as a new staff was to inventory the land-based assets of the arboretum - trees, gardens, pastures, nurseries, wetlands and woodlands - not to mention hundreds of years of artifacts under the ground as well. We aligned creative programming with each of these assets, designed to take advantage of these resources. We continue to assess how each of these aspects of the land can be used for learning and as a way to foster connection between people and the land. Thus continues the ongoing evolution of land use into the 21st century.
In our first several years of operation, we developed programs for early learners (K-5th grade) that brought thousands of Boston Public School students to the arboretum for outdoor environmental education. We created the Summer Archaeology Institute, a program that introduces high school-age youth to the science of archaeology through a hands-on and scientific excavation - which over the years has discovered many treasures! In the years that followed, we have done dozens of land-based seminars and workshops, from how to assess tree health on your property to propagating your own mushrooms or raising backyard chickens. As an arboretum, we are keenly interested in engaging the public about the beauty and benefits of trees - and in particular their role in absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere and helping mitigate the impacts of global warming.

We are certain that Polly would be proud of the work we have done to carry on her legacy for using land as the basis for learning and her vision to ensure its preservation for generations to come.
Articles written and edited by Debbie Merriam, Mark Smith and Erica Max.
Layout by Erica Max.
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